This article is part of our series of modern writing in Vietnam, from the Oi July 2016 issue. For more, click here.
In Vietnam, like it or not, this is the age of the young writer.
You can always pick up a lot about a country’s national psyche from a glance at its literature. It’s one of the roles that good writers inevitably assume, to reflect and express the zeitgeist of their culture—something not always appreciated until years into the future when the works they leave behind remain the most intimate snapshots of their age. In the case of Vietnam, however, there’s little need to wait out the decades to figure out the signs of the times, because the massive influence of global and commercial culture on local writing—they call it globalization—is patently obvious from the moment you walk into the bookstores.
In her 2013 thesis New Voices, Vietnamese cultural studies lecturer Dr. Dana Healey argues that the modern Vietnamese writing voice is intimately tied to the advent of the reformist economics that culminated in the Doi Moi renovations of 1986. In essence, publishing in Vietnam shifted from an ideology-driven function of the State to a marketing platform dedicated to putting out whatever sells. “The most conspicuous manifestation of the dominance of the market,” she writes, “is reflected in the boom of popular literature in Vietnam… for the first time, the ‘value’ of a book bears direct correlation to its market potential rather than its ideological impact.”
In Vietnam, like it or not, this is the age of the young writer. Those who were writing at the crossover point as Vietnam started its national reforms still had their roots in the very dramatic writing styles of the revolutionary era—Nguyen Huy Thiep, Duong Thu Huong, Bao Ninh, Pham Thi Hoai, Nguyen Duy and others—and they simply haven’t been able to keep up with the tastes of emerging internet-generation readers. That’s not to say that the quality of writing in Vietnamese has improved within the relatively relaxed modern cultural environment—most commentators would tell you that Millennial literary quality has a lower benchmark than in previous ages, producing work typified by short sentences, fragmentation, and quick moving plotlines reflecting the brevity of modern communication methods (such as texting and social media posts).
For many reasons, it has become the role of the younger generation of writers—those whose unorthodox creativity and experimentation have contributed to the transformation of Vietnamese literature—to provide exciting, modern and individualized prose as entertainment in a reading culture in which books are perceived, produced, and distributed as merchandise for consumption. To some, this has cheapened the art form; others celebrate the vibrant literary scene that has evolved in Vietnam over the past decade, altering the ways books are written and enjoyed.
Nguyen Huu Tinh, Chairman of the Association of Vietnamese Writers, has been very open in interviews about the pressure that contemporary writers experience from a public which demands “literature that is easy to read, but not necessarily of outstanding literary merit. Average is what sells, which makes it more difficult to reach the heights of creativity.” The new popular literature here is also attracting attention from established figures who find the increasingly ‘unruly’ writing appearing on the market difficult to accept. In Healey’s words, being creative, avant-garde and commercially successful while still complying with bureaucratic considerations is an arduous task, as “pop culture is definitely at odds with official ideas of Vietnamese culture.”
Flying off the Shelves
The rapid transitions in Vietnamese publishing have given rise, for the first time, to the Western concept of the bestseller. They first showed up in translation—successful, internationally-popular books were eyed by global-savvy publishers as potential moneymakers on the local market—but it wasn’t long before local writers began to attempt a homegrown version. If you ignore publications released on modern channels (ePublishing and downloadable audio books, etc.) then this country’s first domestic bestseller in print is usually considered to be the collection of short stories Canh Dong Bat Tan by Mekong writer Nguyen Ngoc Tu, which sold over 108,000 copies and achieved 24 editions. Set in a southern village with poor farmers serving as the main characters, the collection largely deals with the unstable life of a father and two children after their mother runs away with her lover. The book resonated with local readers immediately on publication, and Nguyen Ngoc Tu is still considered a star on the Vietnamese literary scene, having won the Southeast Asian Writers’ Award (SEA Write) for her outstanding contribution to Vietnamese literature.
Nguyen Ngoc Tu is among a number of modern writers who defy the suggestion that local literature has taken a sharp dive in quality. Since the year 2000, a number of genres previously neglected by Vietnamese writers began to proliferate—thrillers and horrors, crime fiction, young adult fiction, women’s fiction, romance, chick lit, biography, travel writing, action adventure and others. This has been particularly evident with the emergence of many fine female authors who represent a new feminist streak in local writing, particularly in urban genres typified by explicit female sexuality and the exposure of cultural traditions that symbolize and subordinate women. “Women’s literature has enjoyed significant growth in the last decade,” writes Healey, “and the literary works of urban-based female writers can be perceived as particularly symptomatic of the deep changes happening in society. Despite the fact that the female writers do not form a homogeneous group, they nevertheless share many similarities: they are young, educated, independent urban residents who possess a good command of a foreign language (usually English) which enables them to travel and engage with foreign cultures either through work or leisure. They are also highly visible through their (self) representation in the media and internet. Their writing is characterized by heightened feminist consciousness and reveals how female subjectivity and agency are being re-conceptualized in a globalizing consumer-oriented Vietnam.”
While much of new Vietnamese writing is by its very nature unavailable to non-Vietnamese readers, it may still profit those with a passion for the field to gain some insights into the country’s new literary wave.
The following are the names to watch out for in translation—and for those whose Vietnamese studies have progressed to the point where enjoying a good book in the language is possible, then these are some of the first writers you should put on your reading list.
Nguyen Nhat Anh
Great writers are always both introspective and highly observant of the society in which they live; they are the greatest commentators of any social era. Anh fits this description extremely well, and it’s thus fortunate that he’s one of modern Vietnam’s most prolific writers. Writing for both young and mature adults, Nhat Anh’s most famous work is the extended Kinh Van Hoa (Kaleidoscope), which consists of a staggering 54 volumes and has since been developed as a TV drama under the same name.
Cosmopolitan globetrotter Duong Thuy writes her bestsellers based on her own worldly experiences; her work Oxford Thuong Yeu (Beloved Oxford) is available in English and narrates a romance between a young Vietnamese girl and a British man she meets while studying at the university. In her writing, readers discover a clear, simple and fun storytelling method. Her characters are mostly young people who are still on their way towards finding themselves, learning to explore their life and to find love. These characters, just like their author, drift from country to country; and on that journey they find everything they have and have not expected.
A rare female writer of Vietnamese crime fiction, Di Li is considered one of the most inspiring, glamorous, and successful Vietnamese young writers. Since 2007 she has published about 30 works, including short stories, fiction, biographies and journals. Her mystery thriller novel, Trai Hoa Do (The Red Flower Farm) published in 2009 is an impressive four hundred pages long and became a huge success after she hooked her readers by serializing and publishing 34 chapters online before announcing they’d have to buy the book to read the rest and solve the mystery. The book was also published regionally and received rave reviews in South Korea and Japan. In addition to crime fiction, Di Li has also written educational books for Vietnamese students.